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"Kambuja," History and Myth

An old tradition explains the word Kambuja as the coun try of a venerable sage called

Kambu, who is supposed to be the originator (mula) of the Khmer royal race. This

is written down in the Baksei Chamkrong inscription, dated 947 A.D. Descendents of

Kambu were supposed to unite a "solar" race and a "lunar" one,

maybe a coded way to describe the ruling families of Cham La and Fou Nan, two Hinduized

kingdoms occupying, at the beginning of the christian era, the lower course of the

Mekong. The story is obviously related to the need of legitimacy of the kings of

what was at the inscription, Kambuja, which was the successor state after the disappearance

of both Cham La and Fou Nan.

Kambu is given as a descendent of the founders of Fou Nan, an Indian brahmin called

Kaundinya and the daughter of the king of the Nagas (water spirits with snake bodies),

a quite interesting union indeed. The trouble for the Khmer story is that it also

appears in Cham inscriptions. It seems to be a local adaptation of an Indian legend,

given as explaining the obviously mythological origins of the powerful Pallava dynasty

of South India (III-IX centuries). But Coedes thinks this legend was created before

the first century A.D., at the beginning of Indianization. The myth was maybe an

explanation of it.

There is nothing to support the existence of an historical character called Kambu,

a word which does not look very Khmer either. The myth should be overturned. From

the name Kambuja, the name of a man Kambu was invented. At the time countries were

often called by the name or title of the rulers. Hence the need to give a meaning

to the word Kambuja that Khmers could not understand, thus proving a political etymology.

But no Kambu is known in Indian literature whereas Kambuja or Kamboja are well attested,

and a long time before Indians set foot on the shores of Indochina (an area which

was neither Indian nor Chinese before the second or the first centuries B.C.)

Kambuja is not a Khmer word but it obviously comes from Sanskrit. In fact Khmers

do not use this word in a casual, non-political way, very much. They rather speak

of "srok khmer", the land, the territory inhabited by Khmers. The Arab

navigators who sailed in this area a long time ago used to call the country Kumar,

an obvious rendering of Khmer and not of Kambuja.

As for the word Khmer, there is no certain origin. Another Mon-Khmer speaking people,

living in northern Laos in an area quite close to the residence of the ancestors

of the Khmers, call themselves the Khmu, which means in their language "the

men". It is quite possible the Khmer also means "men". But it is not


On the other hand, Kambuja is the name of a people known in Indian texts, for instance

in the Edicts of Ashoka (Third century B.C.). Curiously enough, it seems to belong

to the same area as the Yona. The fifth Rock Edict mentions them together. The king

says he is sending his emissaries of the Law (dhammamahamatta) to "yona kamboja

ghandaranam..." French Indianist Alfred Foucher said that the Kohistan, a mountainous

area near Kabul might be the land of the Kambujas, of which we know very little,

except that they were more Iranian than Indian and raised fine horses. It seems from

some inscriptions that they were a royal clan of the Sakas - better known by the

Greek name Scyths.

Historians tend to believe Kambujas were in fact an Iranian tribe. (Old Iranian and

old Sanskrit are very close languages. All these people called themselves Aryan,

from what comes the name Iran). Panini, the Indian genius of grammar, observed that

the word kamboja meant at the same time the tribe and its king. Later historians

identified the same name in several great Persian kings, Cambyse (Greek version)

or Kambujiya (in Persian). Cambyse is famous for his conquest of Egypt (525 B.C.)

and the havoc he wrought upon this country.

It seems, ironically enough, that Yonas and Kambujas lived quite close to each other

in the Kabul area, (although some authors would place them further north in Kashmir)

in a cold mountainous country, using furs and wool garments, living, as still do

a lot of Afghans today from agriculture, horse trading and the manufacture of weapons.

But seen from the point of view of the orthodox brahmanists, these people were acting

properly. The Buddha himself is reported as saying that among the Yonas and Kambujas

there was no caste, or only two, masters and slaves. Slaves could become masters

and vice-versa, which was anathema to the Indian social thought of the time. And

the Jataka say the Kambujas have savage and horrible customs. La Vallée Poussin

concludes from what Panini says: "These are people who do not observe the laws

regulating food and marriage." Panini also says Kambujas and Yonas shave their

head, which seems a bit odd. But who knows the fashions of the time?

It would be proper here to do our file word Champa. This is not a local, Indonesian,

word but an Indian one. It is the name of the central city of an important tribe(sangha,

which means clan, before it designates the religious community), in the country of

the Angas whose name has become Bengal. Champa is today in the vicinity of Bhagalpur,

on the Ganges, downstream from Patna. Bengal, at the time, and even now, is the most

Eastern terminal point in the Aryan push, the cultural process of transforming local

populations into Brahmanical (or Buddhist) societies. Assam and the Northeastern

part of India is only half Indianized, even today. There has been an obviously strong

resistance to the cultural change due to the Vedic invaders coming from the West

or Northwest.

So why were all these words used in reference to existing populations transported

to Indochina? The most likely explanation lies in the fact that, when Indians came

into contact with local populations, the brahmans or the traders dug out from their

geographical memories names of populations (whose real name they probably ignored)

who, in their view were similarly marginal and remote. All these people were only

partially, if at all, observing the brahmanical rules which, in an Indian view, was

the most achieved. Local people had no castes, did not observe proper food observances,

had other rules for marriage. Under Indian influence, their elite was learning these

rules, so they could not be treated as "dasyu", or savages, as some people

in India who resisted and refused the new social model. If somehow Champa meant "half-hinduized",

Kambuja "casteless" and Yona "non-Hindu foreigner", then these

verbal categories could fit the situation Indians were encountering when mixing with

the local Southeast Asian rulers, reorganizing the political and economic structures.

They were using their own mental categories and imposing them on the natives as we

see from the documents. It is then not astonishing that they also imposed the names

of these new entities, if only because Sanskrit was the vehicle of this cultural


But we also see that somehow the local population maintained its own language, traditions

and even its own (popular) religion. Neither the Chams not the Khmers have become

proper Indians. But they have accepted Indian names forgetting in the process the

alien origin of these words and using these new concepts to name new political entities.



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